Comment: Sailing for liberty's sweet shore

Professor Sir Keith Burnett is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield and co-founded the #weareinternational campaign with the President of The University of Sheffield Students' Union. In this article, he reflects on the importance of immigration to universities and wider society.

Sailing for liberty's sweet shore

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE FRS FLSW, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, 29 May 2015

The title of one of my favourite folk songs by John Doyle is 'Sailing for Liberty’s Sweet Shore'. It is a song which is often associated with the journey from the old world of Europe to the possibility of America. When I listened to it last, I was on a bus moving across Kentucky thinking about immigration in the 19th century.

For those who don’t know the song, it tells of the cost of a one-way voyage to a new life. In one verse, we hear how a child of an Irish immigrant dies and is thrown overboard after a short prayer.

We cannot watch the news today without realising that this song is far more than the voice of history. I am even more moved by its lyrics now, when I think of the multitude of people who are trying to reach the Island of Lampedusa, people I first heard about from one of our own academic researchers. What would the Sicilian Aristocrat the ‘Leopard’ - who took his name from that Island – think of us leaving people to die short of his island's shores?

The story of human society is so often one of migration. On the coach I reflected on how the immigrants from Ireland to the US, once despised, are now quite rightly seen as brave pioneers who had to withstand so many hardships to live on ‘Liberty's sweet shores’. The power of the US as a nation owes so much to them, and they are proud of the heritage they carried with them.

Yet America is also still grappling with questions of identity. A few days before, I had been in Memphis - across the state border in Tennessee. It was there that another group were reaching for freedom and a better world, courageous African-Americans who were aiming for a dream and who had lost their leader Martin Luther King in a murder. Now memorialised with a great statue in Washington DC, he is the object of deep reverence. But the struggle for civil rights, it seems, is not finally over, despite America freely voting for its first black President. Freedom’s shores can elude us. Our perceptions can be trapped by our fears.

And now our own country is wracked by thoughts of immigrants – how to reduce numbers, stop a ‘flood’. The upcoming vote on EU membership promised in the Queen’s Speech this week will be defining in many ways.

What do we as universities – as people – have to say about that?

Academia is nothing if it is narrow. Ideas are not separate from people, and they travel with them and always have. From Egypt and India, from Syria and Spain, from China and Africa.

This is especially true in our own times. Consider the giants of so many disciplines. How many of them made their contribution in countries and languages which were not those they were born into? And it is particularly true of the UK, surely a nation which has absorbed and sometimes appropriated from all over the world. We simply must remember how important immigrants are to our country.

In his short but powerful new book, What have the immigrants ever done for us? Kelvin MacKenzie blasts out a truth he now knows he should have proclaimed when he was editor of the UK’s most read tabloid.

What has this got to do with us?

We have a generation of scholars who came to the UK, particularly from Europe, because they wanted to join our academic life and vision. They have done great things for this University and their adopted home. They are part of us. Which is why I think it is important that we make sure our colleagues from across the world know how much we appreciate them. They have had to withstand the onslaught of balmy Yorkshire weather. We need to value their commitment to us and make sure they know that we want them to stay with us.

We need to do this because it is right, but also because what we perhaps took for granted about our future is now being questioned. History charges us to think beyond the immediate, and to remember the lessons which have been hard won by those who travelled before us. Universities are also places which reach, albeit in a less perilous way, for freedom’s shore. We should not take for granted what this means in our own time – if we could only ask ourselves if our descendants would be proud of what we think and do today.

On my coach trip in the American South I heard the music of aspiration with its roots from all over the world, and thought of the people who had made it. One was Ben E King who famously asked people to 'Stand By Me' - a song inspired by a spiritual which our students chose to accompany their shared pictures of friendship without borders.

The University of Sheffield stands with values and people who have crossed international boundaries. We know that our future must be neither narrow nor fragmented.

The song faded as we arrived at Abraham Lincoln's memorial and I remembered his words: "A house divided cannot stand."